Natalia Roman Lopez
Ultra Trail Verbier San Bernard: vindication
Fear number one when planning the yearly racing calendar isn’t picking the right race, but planning enough time before and after the race in order to taper and recover adequately. We tend to see each race as a challenge for our bodies:
Will my leg muscles be up for the challenge?
Will I have the needed stamina to make it to the finish line?
Will I be able to perform as I did at the last race?
For the 2022 summer, my calendar of ultra distance mountain races - I also follow the Skyrunning World Serie but not competitively - looks like this:
June 9th: Dolomiti Xtreme Trail 103k +7200m
July 8th: Ultra Trail Verbier San Bernard 140k +9400m
September 23rd: Adamello Ultra Trail 170k +11500m
The one thing I’ve learnt in the 4 weeks between the 103k at Dolomiti Xtreme Trail (DXT) and Ultra Trail Verbier San Bernard (UTVSB) is that being ready physically to put on a bib is just 50% of the challenge. Our head must first go through a ‘digestion’ and acceptance process in order to let go and be ready to focus on a new project, while reaching a high degree of motivation. It is this second aspect, the psychological one, the one that suffered the most due to the relatively short time span between June 10th and July 9th.
After DXT (read my chronicle here) I felt euphoric and didn't want to close the chapter immediately. On the one hand, I was aware of the slim chance of having another good day at Verbier; on the other hand, I was scared of taking a finish for granted, for the simple fact of having gotten "lucky" at the previous race. Adding to the mental doubts was the undeniable fact of my knee pain... it had already accompanied me during each climb of the last 6 hours of DXT. Despite respecting the recovery period, the discomfort showed up now and then; when it did, it was quite unpleasant. Knowing that it was a muscle overload gave me hope in the medium/long term, but did not improve the immediate outlook.
With all these doubts in the suitcase 'The Beast', I head to Martigny. There, I will meet Jorge and we will set up our base camp in the AirBnB house of a charming czech man. UTSVB starts (and ends) in the Alpine town of Verbier at 10 pm on Friday, July 8th. The distance of 140km, but above all the difference in altitude of +9400m, makes me calculate about 30 hours of running in the best case scenario. This calculation is completely fictitious since I do not know the route, nor can I predict the amount of troubleshooting the day will require.
We spend the hours prior to the start reviewing the crewing plan, logistics, and preparing the support bags:
One with everything that Jorge will 'offer' me at each point: mobile/watch charger, flasks, sunscreen, compeed / plaster, and everything related to the management of type 1 diabetes.
The second bag contains “just in case” items – basically everything in duplicate: backpack, shoes, walking sticks, clothes, blood glucose sensors, etc;
Finally, a bag of low-carb food (which I didn't even touch) and two bags of chips (salvation made food).
The tour is of impressive proportions. What scares the most is the altimetry profile, with ascents and descents of +/- 2000m.Time for some positive thinking: few pole transitions, easy to memorize profile (1x1500m, 2x2000m, 1x1500, 1x750, 1x1400), and best of all: most of the aid stations precede long climbs so I can take in carbohydrates with little insulin and not suffer the typical spike in blood glucose levels.
Thanks to the easy logistics, we plan to meet every 20k or so, which turned out to be a great physical and mental help. After much study of the route, and the theoretical timetables, we came to the conclusion that it would be best for me to go alone to the start so that Jorge would have a restful night and be refreshed to help me fromLa Fouly km 60 onwards. I expect (rather wish) to pass there around 8-9am.
Around 9pm we say goodbye in the town of Le Chable, and I leave for Verbier with the funicular that saves the visitor driving up a twisted road.
Already in Verbier, I meet Paolo Monticolo, a great friend I made during the very tough Dragon's Back Race – which he finished with tenacity, while I gave up after 2 stages out of 5. Paolo is tough as a rock and steady as a tractor. He tells me that his plan is 30h of racing, and that it would be nice to run together. The idea appeals to me, but at the same time I don't like to make such plans since an ultra is very long and full of unforeseen events. I don't want to condition another person, but I also don't want to 'get on a train' that is not mine in terms of pace. We agree to leave it as a prediction rather than a plan.
Still with some daylight, we start at 10:02 p.m. (how distressing are those 2’ of delay!). I have no ambition or hurry so I start calmly and enjoy the festive atmosphere of the streets of Verbier. Before entering the trail, I catch up with Andrea, a friend member of Trail-maniacs.ch, with whom I will end up crossing at every aid station, and we chat. She ran this race last year – when it was 120k long – finding it really tough. Paolo had told the same thing, and that means a lot coming from a rock!
The first climb is, as always, somewhat uncomfortable due to the number of runners flying around, and how difficult it is to find the ultrarunning pace. However, I have the feeling of moving well and cautiously enough.
It is a very warm night that makes me fear the temperatures once the sun rises.
I love running with other girls and it will be like that for the whole first climb and the following ridge. When I arrive at the first aid station at km 13, I realize that my flasks are completely empty! I fill up and prepare for the descent: folding the poles and putting on my headphones. As I leave the aid station, I meet Paolo and Andrea which makes me happy.
The first descent requires paying attention at the beginning and then continues on a typical swiss forest road. I appreciate not having to pay much attention to where to place the foot at each step and I even start singing. I meet the runner with whom I will share several hours throughout the race – especially the entire climb from Champex to Orny before dawn. I baptize him as 'mein roter Freund' because he is dressed all in red haha
The descent leads to the town of Sembracher km 29, the first major aid station. It has been almost 2000m of descent and the legs complain a bit! Here begins a +2000m climb with an intermediate pass through Champex-Lac. I take the opportunity to eat cookies and chocolate (I think without insulin) and a cup of broth that tastes like blended batteries to me; I immediately understand that this is the first and last broth of the day. Before continuing through the streets of the old sleepy town, I meet up with Paolo and Andrea again.
Paolo is sore from a fall and Andrea sticks out her tongue as a sign of exhaustion. However, the two seem cheerful.
Up to this point my blood glucose has behaved pretty ok. I had to take about 25g of dextrose during the climb and then remained stable at ideal values throughout the descent to Sembracher. However, the Dexcom sensor fails and fails, sending false alarms every 5 minutes :-( very frustrating! This will be the trend of the day until the app itself considers the sensor to have failed mid-race. This is one of the reasons why I believe closed loops (sensor + algorithm + insulin pump) are still not reliable for those of type 1 who are shooting for 'normal' blood glucose - as opposed to the diabetic range that brings so many complications in the mid and long term.
I leave the crowded aid station alone, record an audio for Jorge (everything ok) and jump on some wide paths with a mild incline. Soon after, I start noticing pain in my knee. At km 33!! I think the day is going to be very short for me since the pain will probably increase and I will have to DNF, which makes me sad. I decide not to think too much about it and continue to Champex Lac.
At Champex-Lac I feel hungry and, as a steep climb of +1400m awaits me, I succumb to the temptation of some cookies and chocolate.
The route borders the lake of Champex Lac and shortly thereafter BAM a steep uphill. Thanks to the ibuprofen I took at the aid station, the pain slowly fades away - good! A headlight behind me grows brighter and brighter until it reaches me. It's my friend 'the one in red'. I offer him to pass but he replies that he prefers to follow me.
We pick up the pace and soon pass a girl with whom I had run at the beginning of the race and I doubted to see again. 100m further up we pass another girl who, despite climbing hard, we soon leave behind. 'We aren’t doing that bad’ I think to myself. The darkness is total so it is impossible for me to have references. It is the typical terrain which I almost prefer not to see in daylight! The climb becomes increasingly rocky and steep. So much so that I even fold the poles and begin to move in 4-legged tiger mode.
With the first lights of dawn, I become aware of the beauty of the place we are in. We are on our way to the Orny refuge, the highest point of the route at 2850m.
Glaciers and masses of rock surround us, some of them already bathed by the weak dawn sun. The arrival at Orny is a party for runners and volunteers. Looks say more than words, since oxygen is scarce at this height. The last 150m of climb are common to those who go up and down. How refreshing to notice the camaraderie between runners. We all encourage each other.
The food point is located outdoors which, together with the time of day, means that the poor volunteers are covered as if they were going to Everest! I want to wash my hands and test my blood glucose. Not possible. I leak my dirty finger (what doesn't kill you, feeds you!). A photographer films the entire process. 4.4 mmol/L or 83 mg/dL. I yell 'let me be 83' to the camera. A little low, isn’t it? - a volunteer asks me. To which, in all my euphoria, reply 'it's perfect. I am perfect right now’ hahaha I eat a bite and, as we are about to go down, I take 2u of fiasp ultra-rapid insulin. For those of you who know about the subject: do not do this at home! I would never recommend a type 1 to bolus at 4.4 mmol/L while playing sports. I do it because I KNOW MY BODY and yet, I respect and accept the unpredictability of type 1 diabetes.
The descent is one of those that last long as a precious memory. Soon I realize that I am crying of happiness and beauty. I've created a mini-playlist with beautiful songs just before the downhill. I can't resist and, drunk of happiness, I record a video to capture the moment while listening to a great song by 'Facto Delafe y las flores azules'.
However, the complexity of the terrain forces you to concentrate. Slips and trips are a constant. When I think that the most technical part has passed, I put one foot on top of the other and in turn both get stuck under a rock.
I fall on my face. In short, everything hurts. It's hard for me to decide what the priority is. Still a little dizzy, I look at my hand, wrist, knee, hip… and my nose, which bleeds at the place where my glasses stand. I wonder how much a broken nose must hurt and I conclude that it surely hurts more than what i’m feeling right now haha before continuing, I go over each of the teeth with my tongue: they are all there. Let’s go down!
In the last part of the technical descent I overtook the Japanese girl. Curiosity is over the roof, I must take a look at the LiveTrail app to see where I rank at this point. First senior female and second overall among the girls! I can’t believe it. At the same time, I know how long the day is.
Realizing that the girls' race is very much "alive" motivates me to jog the 5k of ups and downs before reaching La Fouly. Jorge will crew me there. Perfect timing to recharge my batteries, eat, get my nose checked, and leave full of optimism for St Bernad.
La Fouly comes 2k earlier than expected. What a joy! Jorge welcomes me with a very cheerful smile. It's only 8am!
I feel good but I don't want to overdo my enthusiasm, rhythm, or optimism. I follow the protocol: charge mobile, check blood glucose, fiasp shot, eat plenty... A very kind British lady is waiting for me to clean up the wound on my nose. Meanwhile, she asks me about my blood glucose, which at that time was 5.0 mmol/L. I tell her about 'the key to success', that is, eliminating the variable that most impacts glycaemia: yes, it is carbohydrate intake! She asks: and the energy? To which I replied: mam, have you tried eating a ribeye? Now, that is energy. We both laugh out loud.
Something I learned at the DXT, is that "losing" time at the aid stations is actually an investment. All in all, I stop for 20 minutes. During that time the Japanese comes in and leaves; two other girls enter the tent and stop. What an exciting women's race! I leave La Fouly quite refreshed and start walking uphill 'with attitude'.
The distance is accumulating. We already have more than 60k under the belt. Soon I start with my mental number games. Until now I had not allowed it, since the numbers played against me.
During the long gentle climb I have a lot of knee pain. Sometimes I stop and massage it, which helps me for a while. Fed up with the heat, I take off my kinesio tape and compression socks. If it's going to hurt anyway, at least I won’t sweat unnecessarily. Just before arriving at the col Fenetre I pass the Japanese girl who is in awe with the alpine terrain (this was her first race in Europe) My friend in red appears again out of nowhere. We have a great time running down to the St Bernard pass. When I arrive, I devour the oranges as if there is no tomorrow. Here I should have injected some insulin since, 3 hours later, I will arrive at Bourg St Pierre too high.
The traffic on the road at the border between Switzerland and Italy is horrible. Luckily we soon swap the road for a steep mountain climb. At the end of it I ask the volunteer about the name of a peak that we wanted to climb on skis last Easter. The guy’s eyes, an avid mountain skier, light up and we begin to joke about how secondary running becomes as soon as a couple of snowflakes fall.
Here begins an ENDLESS descent to the base life of Bourg San Pierre at km 88. I really enjoy the upper part since it is technical and entertaining; As soon as I get to the grassy area, the heat hits me. I survive until reaching the village despite a couple of silly falls, the heat and the hidden uphills. I'm obviously cooked. Good thing I begged Jorge to get some ice cream and ice cubes. Quite a salvation.
As I approach the tent at Bourg St Pierre, I come across Paolo who seems surprisingly clean. He has dropped (and showered). He tells me that his main problem has been altitude sickness, which did not allow him to progress. What a pity! The refreshment point is similar to that of La Fouly but with many more people since at 7am a 70k race took off, following the same route as mine, with numerous runners. A guy sees me injecting Fiasp and Levemir and shows me his Freestyle Libre sensor. Great moment - albeit a bit cloudy seeing my BG momentarily above 200mg/dL.
We have been running for more than 15 hours; and yet, I spot 3 girls at the aid station. Incredible!
My motivation is high. I know it's time to be smart and climb the Col Mille at a constant pace that prevents me from being hit by the heat. Luckily, a breeze begins to blow. The climb is long but I do it without knee pain (I believe it gave in to my stubbornness). I see and hear girls from behind, but I don't know if they are from my race or from the 70k.
The watch hits 100 kilometers as I reach the Mille Col. There I come up with the idea to mix cold water with instant coffee. A sound success. I eat some cookies with my improvised coffee-in-a-flask and continue moving - but not before greeting Andrea again while she accesses the aid station. She compliments my fresh-looking face. I tell her she must be hallucinating because I don’t feel fresh at all! My hope is that the next 7k pass as quickly as possible.
The perspective of seeing Jorge again at Brunet is clearly a motivating one. As I approach the Brunet hut, and despite the guitar blasts from the rock concert I am listening to, I hear Jorge yelling some words of encouragement.
The contrast of the last km, which I had traveled alone, with the bubbly mood of the Brunet aid station shocks me. They seem like two parallel worlds. Luckily, a volunteer starts cutting a watermelon into cubes. It makes my mouth water. I tell him that I am the watermelon monster and I plan to eat it all haha Jorge acts upon any of my crazy requests and changes my bottles straight away - this time containing black tea and water with lemon.
I am in a good mood and curious to discover the next section of the course, which wanders under the menacing gaze of the Great Combin - now, that is a real monster!
I leave Brunet with joy and I even jog a mini climb. The views of the Gran Combin are breathtaking and I photograph its west face, which cannot be climbed or skied. A hanging mole of ice.
At some point the crisis had to come. However, it took me completely by surprise.
Shortly after crossing the river it becomes painfully sunny and hot. The terrain is grassy and very steep. The crisis lasts until the end of the climb, which, luckily, is not very long. I crawl up with some English people who suffer as much as I do and, in a certain way, sharing the suffering makes it even bearable.
From the unnamed col, a very direct descent to the famous suspension bridge comences. From there, a climb to the Cabanne de Pannosieres following the old glacial moraine. Without thinking twice, I put on my downhill gloves and start running down with the only company of a handful of good songs. As I cross the bridge, I think I need a new strategy for the next climb. Since I feel low in energy, I make the exceptional decision to take 10g of dextrose even though no hypoglycemia whatsoever seems to be going on.
At this point in the race, the glucose measurement sensor has died and I'm making diabetes treatment decisions based on my feelings and 'educated intuition'.
In case of hypoglycemia, I would always notice the symptoms. What annoys me is being too high (above 140mg/dL or 7.8 mmol/L) since I have no symptoms of hyperglycemia when racing. Unlike during my day-to-day, when I tend to face concentration problems, irritation, or a headache if my blood glucose goes up fast or stays high for a while. The dextrose trick works. I am also surprised by the mental strength I am showing today when challenged with unfavorable situations.
At Cabanne Panossieres I am greeted by the same photographer I met at Orny, 14h ago! He asks about my blood glucose. I measure with a drop of blood. 6.4mmol/L. Good. Daylight hours are getting scarce and I would like to complete the 1600m descent to Lourtier without the headlamp. I am not lingering any longer. As I pick up my pace… Andrea! I think the surprise is mutual. It spurs on me the motivation to push the descent, which - all things considered - is a party.
Flow and more flow throughout the upper half. I am obviously overpacing and my legs complain. Then a cumbersome and technical section until reaching the first town. We still have 400m to go but the only thing I see on the horizon is a flat asphalt road. It is truly demoralizing. Especially knowing that there is a big climb after Lourtier. I want to get there asap, stock up, go out and kill the beast!
Ten minutes before the end of the downhill, I acknowledge the fact that my eyes have not yet the superpower of seeing in the dark and I switch on the headlamp.
Finally Loutier. I've been thinking about that risotto for a long time. It is the only food my stomach can take right now. The mood at this aid station is gloomy. The tension is palpable in the atmosphere since we are all painfully aware of the cruel ascent awaiting. I prepare to leave and ask Jorge to send me a message with the time difference once the girl in third position leaves the aid station.
My strategy is clear: sustainability. I decide to climb at whichever pace I can sustain for the next +1200m. After half an hour I see I am climbing at a 550m per hour vertical speed - not bad!
From time to time a light appears in the middle of the night above me. I pass most of them. There is no chit-chat. Each one bears his/her own burden. Some stop and sleep at the edge of the path. It looks like the night of the zombies.
My only problem is the lack of water, which makes me suffer unnecessarily. I arrive at the last aid station located on top of the climb very very dehydrated. The kind volunteers fill one flask with black tea and the other one with water. I can’t believe my eyes: half a dozen fellow runners are napping like babies in a corner of the ski resort restaurant ‘dressed up’ for the occasion with soft mattresses and blankets.
During the final descent (not without horrible unexpected re-climbs), two thoughts play over and over in my head:
The golden ticket for Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc 2023 (the mother of all ultra running races) is assured
Iif Andrea catches me, I'll propose crossing the finish line together making it a victory for trail-maniacs.ch - how proud Patricia, its founder, will be :-)
The complexity of the terrain doesn't allow me to get distracted or emotional. Roots, logs, loose soil… a full menu! I'm glad to arrive at an odd time - past 1 am - so I don't have to behave heroically and sprint to the finish line. I run through the streets of Verbier with the same regularity that I managed to maintain during most of the race. There is just enough time left for a song. No doubt about which one: Miracle.
FINISH LINE! Letting a runner from the marathon finishing just 1' under the cut-off go first :-)
When I cross the finish line I finally unleash the fatigue, pain, emotions and, I won’t deny it, the pride of having managed 27 hours and 27 minutes of pure joy like a boss.
I write this chronicle more than two weeks after my long day out around the Verbier mountains. Today was the first time feeling energized again in the mountains - wow, I can even breathe again! Registration for UTMB 2023 is done. For me, what really counts is every minute, turn, jump, or sunrise enjoyed and shared in our beloved mountains. And Verbier had plenty of it all. Nothing else matters.
Finally, two learning pearls
If you are going to do something hard, try to make everything else surrounding this feat as favorable as possible. Who would build a skyscraper with a beach bucket? We need a backhoe!
After DXT and Verbier it is crystal clear that I need, want, and appreciate as much help as I can get at aid stations. Not only from a logistical and gear point of view - that too - but from a morale building perspective. ‘Thanks’ to type 1 diabetes (diagnosed in April 2019) I have learned not only to accept, but to ask for help from those who are selflessly willing to offer it. Remember, the human being wants to do good and help others. Either for altruism or for self-satisfaction.
Each ultra is a micro-world in itself; and statistics do not matter! Running for 27 hours does not obey the laws of logic. Perhaps it is closer to aesthetics.
Two weeks before the race I was tired and had knee pain. Four days before, I suspected COVID - it was actually an issue with sleeping at altitude. Logic said I would - most probably - fail. I needed a miracle, indeed. And the miracle came. Crederci ragazzi :-)
The take home message is knowing how to accept the exact opposite: stellar preparation, motivated mindset, desire to push... and despite all this a bad day, a stumble, upset stomach, etc. and head home! Hard, very hard. In such a moment, ask yourself: why do I do it? In the honest answer you will probably find the key to try again another day.
Wrapping up, some hard facts!
UTVSB consists of 140k with 9400m of elevation
I completed the course in 27 hours and 27 minutes
Ranking 1st in my age group; 2nd woman overall; 20th scratch (men & women)
Hardest fact: I can’t wait to test my limits at Adamello Ultra Trail 170k in September!